Wearables and Analytics Promise a Comprehensive Look at Parkinson’s

Andy Grove, a former Intel CEO, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease after retiring from the company. Recently, he brokered a collaboration between Intel and the Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF) with a goal of using big data analytics and Intel technology to better study and understand the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.

“Intel has created a platform to collect and store data from wearable devices worn by people with Parkinson’s and control volunteers,” says Todd Sherer, PhD and CEO of The Michael J. Fox Foundation. Intel’s trial studies are expected to give researchers a comprehensive look at how patients live with Parkinson’s, complete with detailed data that reflects the nuances of the disease.

Parkinson’s is a chronic and progressive neurodegenerative disorder that impacts the nervous system and causes difficulties with movement. Symptoms range in severity from patient to patient and the disease progresses faster in some, with certain symptoms presenting more strongly than others. Medications are available to alleviate these symptoms, but there is no known cure for Parkinson’s.

Many Parkinson’s patients have infrequent visits with neurologists, which makes it difficult for doctors to track and manage changes in their patients’ symptoms. Wearable technology—like the Intel Basis watch—could address this problem by continuously tracking symptom development and removing the fallibility that can go along with self-reported changes. Aggregating this recorded data allows researchers to look for commonalities, to assess how medications impact individuals, and eventually, to work with patients and physicians to implement more individualized and effective treatments for the disease.

According to Dr. Marie Saint-Hilaire, an associate professor of neurology at Boston University Medical Center and the director of the Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center at BMC, some Parkinson’s patients observe their symptoms well and can distinguish how they feel before and after taking medication. But others may not feel such pronounced symptoms and can have a difficult time reporting changes in their conditions.

“Tremor is very easy to detect. The problem is the other symptoms of Parkinson’s that can really impact more the quality of life of patients,” Dr. Saint-Hilaire says.

This is where the new partnership between Intel and MJFF comes in. Saint-Hilaire says finding methods for tracking changes in movement is a positive development. “The main issue is trying to interpret what the sensors are picking up.”

Intel’s proposed solution involves consistent symptom tracking through devices and interpretation of the information through big data analytics. Vin Sharma works in product strategy and marketing on the big data software team at Intel. He says his work involves extracting meaning from a huge volume of human-generated data—in this case, data gathered from sensor-based devices and phone applications. Intel’s preliminary trials attempt to validate the wearable devices as symptom trackers.

“This disease varies day-to-day, hour-to-hour, and objective data from a wearable device can supplement periodic clinical appointments to help physicians and patients optimize treatment regimens,” says Todd Sherer of MJFF.

intelbasis watch

The Intel Basis watch is being used in several of the trial groups. Photo via Slash Gear.

Participants in the trials, including Parkinson’s patients, wear a device or devices for a select number of days and input information about how they feel into a phone app. Researchers then develop algorithms to analyze this data and assess methods for managing a disease that changes slowly and has a diverse range of symptoms.

Intel tried out a number of wearable devices in its series of studies, each of which focuses on an isolated area relevant to Parkinson’s. The sensors in the devices send information to a participant’s phone, from the phone to the cloud, and from the cloud to a database, which is accessible to researchers. These devices can read standard metrics like heart rate patterns and calorie expenditure and can track motion, sleep stages, sweat, and skin temperature.

“The vast amount of data these devices can collect presents the foundation for a paradigm shift in how we examine the clinical experience of Parkinson’s,” says Sherer.

The metrics are valuable indicators for Parkinson’s patients, who exhibit symptoms including tremors, rigidity and stiffness, slowed movement, and impaired balance or coordination.

“We start to aggregate this data, look for patterns in it. Over time they’re also able to enrich that data with patients reporting when they took medications at what time,” Sharma says. From there, researchers can analyze the data to see which drugs are working, and to drive better or faster drug approval by the FDA.

The next step for this project will be taking the program from a research phase to a clinical phase. Right now, the information gathered from these trials is available to researchers, but not to physicians. Adding physicians to the mix, Sharma says, will forge a connection where patients, researchers, and physicians can work together and share information to provide benefits and personalized treatments for Parkinson’s patients.

“Our real hope is that use of these technologies can help develop a therapy to slow or stop Parkinson’s progression,” says Sherer. “Clinical trials need objective outcome measures, and wearable technologies may provide more efficient and confident testing of an experimental drug’s effect. Data analysis may also point to previously unreported trends or anomalies in the Parkinson’s population that will illuminate new areas of study and hopefully new paths to a cure.”

Intel’s devices can collect one gigabyte of data per person per day, according to Sharma. Put in the context of the approximately 1 million people currently diagnosed with Parkinson’s in the U.S., this is a huge volume of information, should the use of the tracking tools proliferate.

As for the partnership with The Michael J. Fox Foundation, “It’s been very gratifying and in some ways uplifting for the entire team to be part of this project,” Sharma says. “We’re building technology that helps people feel better and in the longer term, maybe in some small way, help with finding the cure.”

Dana Hatic

Dana Hatic

    Dana Hatic is a web journalist at WHDH-TV. She received an MS in Journalism from Boston University and a BS in political science and journalism from the University of Miami. She is also involved with the Team Fox Young Professionals of Boston.

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